Undeterred by either scorching heat or pouring rain, depending on which part of the country they were queuing up in, and, perhaps even more remarkably, unafraid of the still-lingering threat posed by the brutal Islamist militants of Boko Haram, who, although beaten back in recent weeks by the Nigerian armed forces and their regional allies, still sallied forth on election day to launch attacks in several northern states, Nigerians came out in the millions to cast ballots this past weekend in the African continent’s biggest electoral exercise. Retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari has claimed victoryin light of a strong lead over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan.

The sheer logistics involved in the election were daunting. Just before the vote, Attahiru Jega, chairman of the commission, summarized the effort that would be required to conduct the poll with 68,833,476 eligible voters across the 36 states of the federation plus the federal capital territory. A total of close to 155,000 voting points had to be set up and about 700,000 polling officials in addition to the hundreds of thousands of security agents had to be deployed, a workforce which he noted was equivalent to “three times the combined strength of the armed forces of countries in the entire West Africa subregion.” 

And, as if all this were not challenge enough, this time the country implemented a new biometric voter identification system in the hope of preempting the allegations of fraud that have marred previous polls and which have occasioned post-election riots and violence, including the last time around in 2011, when more than 800 people lost their lives. 

But it was not just the monumental scale of the voting process that set the election apart, but thebackdrop of security threats, humanitarian challenges and economic pressures against which the most competitive contest since the country’s transition from military to civilian rule in 1999 has been fought. The winner will not only have finish up the battle with Boko Haram, whose insurgency cost the lives of more than 10,000 people last year and prompted a six-week delay in the polls earlier this year, but he will have to win the ensuing peace by a combination of political, economic and social development programs. 

But where will the resources come from? With the largest proven petroleum reserves in Africa, it is no surprise that, despite the diversification in recent times of the Nigerian economy, Africa’s largest, hydrocarbons still make up some 80 percent of the government’s revenues. Consequently, oil prices being cut in half over the last year seriously dented the economy: the naira is trading at record lows against the U.S. dollar, the Nigerian Stock Exchange is down by almost one-third from a year ago and expectations for economic growth in 2015 have been revised downward. On Monday, Fitch Ratings cut the country’s credit-rating outlook to negative, possibly indicating that it may join Standard and Poor’s, which downgraded the Nigeria’s debt earlier this month.

These are, however, questions for another day. For now, not only Nigerians, but Africans across the continent have several reasons to be cheered by the vote.

First, for all the imperfections in their democracy, Nigerians have one and their leaders, however seemingly inept at times, ultimately feel accountable to their constituents. Whatever can be said for his overall record, Jonathan tried to deliver, not only on a number of key infrastructure projects, but in launching the recent (if belated) successful offensive by the Nigerian militar, reportedly assisted by foreign contractors, as well as forces from neighboring countries. And while Buhari could not hide from his past as a onetime military chief who overthrew an elected president in 1983, inaugurating a series of coups and countercoups that bedeviled Nigeria for nearly two decades, he has also patiently submitted himself to the electorate in no fewer than three previous elections since the restoration of democracy before finding his apparent stride in the most recent campaign, during which he made inroads in a number of constituencies outside his traditional base in the Muslim north. Both leaders thus stand well apart from many of their African peers just by presenting the voters with a real choice. 

Second, if a country as large and as socially complex as Nigeria can pull itself together to organize elections which the international community, led by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has generally applauded, there is no reason why smaller countries with far fewer societal fissures cannot do so if the leaders and people but have the political will.

In fact, Nigeria is the first of nearly two dozen African countries which are supposed to hold elections over the course of the next 18 months. Already there are worrisome signs that those in power are loath to concede to their people anything approaching the opportunity that Nigerians had. In the rather ironically-named Democratic Republic of the Congo, incumbent ruler Joseph Kabila – in power since 2001 when, at the ripe old age of 29, he succeeded his warlord father to the presidency – continues to narrow the political space as he searches for a way around a strict two-term limit in the constitution, not only killing at least three dozen people, mostly unarmed students protesting a proposal earlier this year to delay elections, but just this month, going so far as to arrest a U.S. diplomat along with other participants at a press conference organized for visiting African pro-democracy activists. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé, facing a tough re-election later this year, recently invoked the fight against Ebola to justify putting an army general in charge of the ministry that provides logistical support to the electoral commission, which then postponed long-overdue local elections – conveniently leaving unelected appointees of the incumbent in place to run the presidential vote scheduled for October. And, sadly, one could go on listing a number of similar cases.

All of this underscores why this past weekend’s Nigerian presidential and parliamentary elections – for all the effort that went into them and all the delays, inefficiencies, and tensions that were endured – were nonetheless an important milestone, not just for the West African country, but for the African continent. Nigeria voted and, because the judgment of its citizens as expressed at the ballot box literally counted, Africa as a whole won.

 

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